Two former Almost Home employees say they don't know why they were fired from the North Central Iowa Humane Society's no-kill Fort Dodge shelter.
The shelter's board president says he can't comment on why Katt Flockhart and Barb Smith were let go.
But social media has played a role in the drama that has unfolded since December. In fact, Almost Home Shelter Director Renee Drown said, "Social media blew up."
Everyone involved agrees that multiple cats were left in a home when their owner died and that those cats needed to be rescued.
After that, the story gets murky.
Flockhart said she was told by Drown, who was hired on Dec. 17, 2012, to handle the rescue. Drown, she said, had received a call about the cats and asked Flockhart, who ran the shelter cattery, what they should do and whom they should contact.
"I said, 'The first thing we need to do is call a vet,' Flockhart said. "I assumed we, as the local shelter, would be taking those cats. I did not ask if she was taking them somewhere else or if someone else was coming in or if animal control was taking them."
Flockhart said she contacted Dr. Mike Bottorff, a veterinarian who serves on the shelter's board of directors, and he agreed to examine the cats when they arrived. Flockhart said she made sure there was available space in the quarantine room and talked with other shelter employees who said they were ready and willing to perform the rescue.
In the meantime, however, she said Drown had "posted something on the Almost Home website about the Des Moines ARL (Animal Rescue League of Iowa) coming in and another rescue to take these cats."
In response, Flockhart said, other rescue groups began to post on the website indicating they would help round up the animals rather than involve the ARL, because of a "fear of euthanasia." ARL is not a no-kill shelter.
"I said nothing more. I was not told about the ARL myself," Flockhart said. "As far as I knew, we were still rescuing these cats."
She said she asked Drown about the ARL and was told the ARL was coming in to examine the cats. Flockhart said she told Drown she was confused because arrangements were already made to have Bottorff check out the animals.
"Then from there," Flockhart said, "it blew up on the Internet because (Drown) had commented back to these people that Almost Home would have full control over the animals, even though the ARL was coming in. Someone had commented that they had worked with the ARL, and the ARL doesn't come up on their own dime to walk into a house of this situation and then hand over the cats to another shelter. That's just kind of common sense, they just don't work that way."
However, Tom Colvin, executive director of the ARL, said that's exactly the way it works. When there is a request from another shelter, Colvin said, the ARL doesn't charge the shelter. In a rescue situation, he said, fees are only collected when the request is made by law enforcement. The ARL will make an attempt to collect money in animal cruelty and neglect cases if and when a person is convicted, he said.
Flockhart, who lives in Stanhope, said she was driving to Fort Dodge on her day off, expecting to go to the house with Drown because even though online posts said Almost Home was not rescuing the cats, Drown had not told her otherwise. However, Flockhart said, when she stopped to pick up Smith to run a quick errand, Smith said there were more troubling posts.
Flockhart and Smith then went to Bottorff's office and "we pleaded with him, please, to help us. So we had kind of just spilled the beans on everything from Renee not helping us at work and us being extremely stressed out, and we were being lied to about the cat rescue, and my name was getting drug through the mud" because, Flockhart said, she was still telling people that Almost Home was going to perform the rescue.
Although a previous shelter director routinely helped with cleaning, other day-to-day tasks and routine customer service, Drown refused to help out with mundane tasks, Flockhart said. Drown, she said, "wouldn't do it, wouldn't do it, and we finally quit asking." As a result, she said, animal care and customer service suffered.
Greg Wells, the shelter's board president, said Thursday that Drown's primary role is fundraising.
Bottorff told Flockhart to talk with Wells.
Flockhart said she and Smith then went to the shelter and "walked into Renee's office. I said, 'We need to talk.'"
Drown began yelling at them that they had no right to rescue the cats and they had no idea what was going on, Flockhart said. Drown then turned to Smith and fired her, Flockhart said, blaming Smith for a Facebook post on Smith's personal page.
Wells said Thursday at a press conference he had told Drown to contact the ARL. He was concerned about employee safety, he said, because of the number of cats and the possible condition of the house.
Flockhart said she, Smith, Wells and Drown had a meeting after the firing, and Wells reinstated Smith; all four agreed to a fresh start.
Before the ARL could perform the rescue, though, Amber Klepsteen, the woman who had originally contacted Almost Home about rescuing the cats, decided to bring the animals in on her own. That was Jan. 6, and Flockhart said for the next four days "nothing was said about me being in trouble for bringing them in."
She said she was in the quarantine room on Jan. 11 when she was told Wells wanted to speak to her. Flockhart said she was medicating the rescued cats. When she went into the office, "I had no clue I was about to be fired."
Wells, she said, demanded her keys and said her services were no longer needed. She said she asked why she was being fired, and Wells said he didn't have to tell her. Flockhart said she told Wells and Drown, who was also in the office, that her keys were in the quarantine room and that she wasn't going to leave without finishing the task of medicating the cats. She said Wells came to the quarantine room demanding she leave immediately.
Later, the same afternoon, Flockhart said, the scenario was repeated with Smith being fired again.
Smith said when she was asked for her keys, Wells told her there was a change of plans or something similar.
"I would have been there three years in June," she said. "It kills me not having my job."
Flockhart said another employee later told her that Wells had said the firings were because "this Facebook stuff had gone public. Now, what Facebook stuff he is talking about, I have no idea because Barb and I hadn't said anything."
However, Flockhart said, she had commented twice on a page that "blasted" her for an incident involving a kitten that was brought to Almost Home and turned over to the city's animal control officer.
Flockhart said a stray kitten was brought to Almost Home, but there was no space available. The man who brought in the kitten was told by a shelter employee the shelter was full. He could either take it with him and wait until space opened up or the employee would have to call animal control. The man didn't want the kitten, and the employee called animal control. According to Flockhart, who wasn't present at the time, the employee was following a longstanding shelter policy and did "exactly what she should have done."
Another employee spotted a Facebook post, Flockhart said, by someone whose last name was Stevens charging that while everyone was focusing on the group of rescued cats, "what about this poor three-month old kitten that was brought in from their owner and promised a nice, warm kennel and a loving home and was surrendered to you guys that was turned away, given to animal control by Katt to be dumped off at a hog confinement?" Flockhart said she contacted the employee who had turned over the cat to animal control and assured the employee she had done what was proper.
At the same time, another person with the last name Stevens was also posting online, Flockhart said.
He first appeared, she said, about the same time Drown began her job at the shelter. Drown, on her second day of work, proposed selling cats for the discounted price of $12 and dogs for $50, a plan Flockhart strongly disagreed with. She said she told Drown it was a bad idea, but Drown insisted on going forward.
Drown said Thursday she was trying to make animals from the shelter competitive with advertisements for free cats and dogs that appear in newspapers or on Craigslist.
Flockhart said she feared the sale would not draw the type of person who could provide good, permanent homes for the animals.
A second online commenter, who identified himself as Trip Stevens, "friended every single shelter employee," she said. Flockhart said she didn't know Trip Stevens, but friended him because she "assumed he was just an animal person." Smith said no one at the shelter had heard of a Trip Stevens, although "he told us he'd worked with us at the shelter."
Because he seemed to know so much about what was going on at the shelter, employees and managers started looking at volunteer files, trying to see if they could ferret out Trip Stevens' identity.
Flockhart said employees began asking each other if they were him.
Shelter workers and volunteers were "terrified," she said, wondering if the facility was bugged or if someone was spying on them.
"One of the volunteers on the front desk went as far as to go to Iowa Courts Online just to see if there was any kind of record there. Nothing," Flockhart said.
"I do think it's pretty coincidental that there is a fake Trip Stevens, and there is a Tasha Stevens, and considering both of them have profiles with no picture, no information, that was just created. It's very fishy," Flockhart said. "One person is bashing me left and right, and the other person is standing up for me."
Flockhart said she and Smith believed they were getting blamed for the information Trip Stevens was posting.
Both women have denied being Trip Stevens.
Tasha Stevens later posted again, Flockhart said, writing that while Flockhart wasn't the one who turned over the kitten to animal control, she was the one who told the other employee to do so.
"Greg got on the same website," Flockhart said, "and very publicly posted that if any employee sent an animal to animal control, they will be terminated immediately." That, she said, "caused another huge uproar" because that had been standard policy at the animal shelter.
Wells responded Thursday: "It's not a policy; it's a procedure. It's a procedure that I will tell you the bulk of the board really doesn't understand. I've been on the board since 2010. This was the first time I'd ever heard of it, so that's, frankly, where that statement came from. I was appalled by that. Here's how this works, and this leans more toward cats because we end up with a lot more cats than we do dogs. If somebody brings in a cat and we're over capacity, what they have done is to contact animal control and animal control will come out and pick the animal up and take it to Town and Country. The reason being, unless that animal is delivered to Town and Country via animal control, Town and Country won't be reimbursed for the housing of that animal."
Wells said he was stunned to learn that this "has been a procedure that has occurred. Finding that out, obviously, I didn't terminate anyone as a result of that decision. But I also made it clear to the board that we're going to be reviewing the procedure because it's a procedure that I'm completely uncomfortable with."
Flockhart also said she knows Wells "has a big issue with our sponsors and our donors," whom she said are the only reason Almost Home exists.
Flockhart said she was contacted by Donette Gadbury, a donor who said Wells had told her she was "not important ... that he did not care about her opinion as a sponsor. All he wanted was her money. He has basically made the same statement to Barb and myself."
Wells was asked at the press conference whether he had told Gadbury to take her contributions elsewhere. He said, "To be fair about it, at the end of the day just because you're a contributor doesn't mean you're going to come into a facility - whether it's Almost Home, United Way, the Red Cross, or any other charitable organization - and tell that organization how to operate. It's simply nonsense. And, quite honestly, the quantity of contributors that we have, that come in, write a check, and wish us the best, are astronomical.
"We do have a handful that are very specific, and those are OK too. Then we have some that, quite honestly, on occasion make demands and, on other occasions, make threats. We get ultimatums. I have the tendency to choose to go against the ultimatums and part company. So the short answer, specific to her in that conversation is, if she chose to take her contributions elsewhere, so be it."
However, he also praised donors Esther Tuvell, who was instrumental in establishing the cattery at the animal shelter, and Marlys Smith, who will have naming rights to a proposed dog park at Almost Home.
Flockhart also said she and Barb Smith had interviewed for other jobs at the shelter and "we were pretty much promised the promotions." However, the position was instead given to a part-time worker who had less experience and less knowledge, she said.
Wells said Flockhart and Smith had applied and were interviewed, but they had not been promised promotions.
At Thursday's press conference, Wells said the shelter is an asset to Fort Dodge, and "I believe in what we do."
In what seemed to be a rare point of agreement, Smith said, "I don't want to see anything bad happen at the shelter. I don't want the donors to back out."